February 25, 2011

Algarve Cup - Group A Preview

The Algarve Cup has been an annual stop for the United States, Sweden, and several other northern European countries. The tournament generally offers top competition in a somewhat relaxed setting. Missing from this year's tournament is the 2010 runner-up, Germany. Taking their place in the first two groups is Japan.

Of course, the importance of this year's competition is that it is a World Cup year, meaning that some roster spots for June may be won or lost based on play at Algarve. This year's field features four World Cup teams, the United States, Sweden, Norway, and Japan. Also in Portugal are four other teams that came close, but fell just short of qualifying. They are Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and China.

On paper, Group A is the toughest, with three of the world's top seven teams, plus a strong side from Finland. Here is a preview of Group A:

Coach: Andrée Jeglertz
World Rank: #16
World Cup: Failed to qualify after finishing 2nd in UEFA Group 7 behind Italy.

Latest Results:
Friendies: Defeated Russia 5-4.
UEFA WC Qualifying (Since July, 2010): Lost to Italy 1-3, Defeated Slovenia 4-1.

Algarve Cup Roster:
Goalkeepers: Minna Meriluoto, Tinja-Riikka Korpela, Katja Kankaanpää.
Defenders: Tuija Hyyrynen, Susanna Lehtinen, Maija Saari, Tiina Salmén, Petra Vaelma, Katri Nokso-Koivisto, Elina Syrjälä.
Midfielders & Forwards: Laura Österberg Kalmari, Pernilla Nordlund, Essi Sainio, Jaana Lyytikäinen, Emmi Alanen, Annika Kukkonen, Annika Sjölund, Marianna Tolvanen, Linda Sällström, Leena Puranen, Anna-Kaisa Rantanen.

The Finnish team certainly had to be disappointed at missing the World Cup. They were in good position to advance out of the group stage, but lost an important match to Italy at home by a 3-1 margin.

Finland's best play in several top leagues around the world, including Sweden and Germany. One name on the roster will stand out to American soccer fans. Laura Kalmari played the 2010 season with Sky Blue FC, scoring five goals. She was also Finland's leading scorer in World Cup qualifying matches with seven goals. She has 40 career goals as a national team player.

While Kalmari is probably Finland's biggest scoring threat, they have other offensive options. Linda Sällstrom, who plays club soccer in Sweden for Linköpings, scored five goals in qualifying. She is just 22 years old. Annica Sjölund also notched five goals in qualifying matches. Midfielder Anna-Kaisa Rantanen is nearing 100 career caps.

Defensively, the Finns are led by Tiina Salmén, Maija Saari, and Susanna Lehtinen, who can play both defender and midfielder. The goalkeeping duties are shared by Tinja-Riikka Korpela and Minna Meriluoto.

Finland has the misfortune of being place with three World Cup qualified teams in this group, but they can certainly hold their own against any of them.

Coach: Norio Sasaki
World Rank: #5
World Cup: Qualified by finishing 3rd in the Asian Cup, defeating China by a 2-0 margin.

Latest Results:
Asian Games: Defeated Thailand 4-0, Tied Korea DPR 0-0, Defeated China 1-0, Defeated North Korea 1-0.

Algarve Cup Roster:
Goalkeepers: Nozomi Yamago, Miho Fukumoto, Ayumi Kaihori.
Defenders: Yukari Kinga, Kyoko Yano, Azusa Iwashimizu, Aya Sameshima, Yuki Sakai, Saki Kumagai, Akane Saito.
Midfielders: Homare Sawa, Aya Miyama, Nahomi Kawasumi, Megumi Kamionobe, Mizuho Sakaguchi, Asuna Tanaka, Rumi Utsugi.
Forwards: Eriko Arakawa, Kozue Ando, Shinobu Ohno, Mami Yamaguchi, Yuki Nagasato, Megumi Takase.

Japan, always regarded as one of the best technical teams in the world, is ranked 5th in the world. They survived a mild upset at the hands of Australia and still managed to qualify for the 2011 World Cup.

Several Japanese players have graced the WPS including Homare Sawa, Aya Miyama, Eriko Arakawa, and Mami Yamaguchi. Sawa and Arakawa are the veterans of the squad, along with goalkeeper Nozomi Yamago. Sawa is nearing 80 international goals, quite a record for the former Washington Freedom midfielder. Arakawa, probably unfairly known more for her flamboyant hairstyle, is a very skilled player that can run at defenders or feed teammates.

Meanwhile, Miyama might be one of the best in the world at placing free kicks and corners. She was the WPS assist leader in 2009. Yamaguchi, who has played professionally in both Sweden and the US, has a world of potential. Shinobu Ohno is a top notch forward and has over 30 international goals to her credit. Kozue Ando is another top veteran for the offense.

With many of their top players reaching their prime, will this be the year that Japan breaks through and wins the World Cup? A good tournament at Algarve would be a step in the right direction.

Coach: Eli Landsem
World Rank: #7
World Cup: Qualified by winning UEFA Group 2 and then defeating Ukraine by 3-0 aggregate.

Latest Results:
UEFA WC Playoff Round: Defeated Ukraine 1-0, Defeated Ukraine 2-0.
UEFA WC Qualifying (since July, 2010): Defeated Slovakia 4-0, Defeated FYROM (Macedonia) 7-0.

Algarve Cup Roster:
Goalkeepers: Ingrid Hjelmseth, Erika Espeseth Skarbø, Caroline Knutsen.
Defenders: Maren Mjelde, Hedda Strand Gardsjord, Runa Vikestad, Nora Holstad Berge.
Midfielders: Lisa-Marie Woods, Lene Mykjåland, Guro Knutsen Mienna, Gry Tofte Ims, Trine Rønning, Lene Storløkken, Madeleine Giske.
Forwards: Leni Larsen Kaurin, Lise Klaveness, Isabell Herlovsen, Elise Thorsnes, Cecilie Pedersen, Lindy Melissa Wiik, Ingrid Ryland.

Norway has made it to at least the quarterfinals in every World Cup played. They are trying to build back to the level of the 1995 Championship team. They had a relatively easy time winning Group 2 of UEFA World Cup qualifying, beating out Holland by five points. They then won both matches against Ukraine to earn their berth in the World Cup.

Absent will be two long-time stars for the team. Solveig Gulbrandsen retired last year after a wonderful career and Ingvild Stensland is nursing a back injury. That leaves midfielder Trine Rønning as the most capped player for Norway at Algarve.

Isabell Herlovsen was Norway's leading scorer in WC qualifying with nine goals. At age 22, she already has 18 in her career for Norway's national team. WPS midfielder Lene Mykjåland is one if the top players in the tournament. Young Cecilie Pedersen could be a player to watch for the future.

The defense is a relatively young group, but there is a veteran at goalkeeper in Ingrid Hjelmseth. Hjelmseth gave up just two goals in qualifying matches, both to Holland. It will be interesting to see how Norway fares at Algarve, especially since they are missing one of their top players.

United States
Coach: Pia Sundhage
World Rank: #1
World Cup: Qualified by finishing 3rd in the CONCACAF region, then defeating Italy in a playoff by 2-0 aggregate.

Latest Results:
Four Nations Tournament: Lost to Sweden 1-2, Defeated Canada 2-1, Defeated China 2-0.
WC Qualifying Playoff: Defeated Italy 1-0, Defeated Italy 1-0.
CONCACAF WC Qualifiers: Defeated Haiti 5-0, Defeated Guatemala 9-0, Defeated Costa Rica 4-0, Lost to Mexico 1-2, Defeated Costa Rica 3-0.
Friendlies: Tied Sweden 1-1, Defeated Sweden 3-0, Defeated China 2-1, Tied China 1-1.

Algarve Cup Roster:
Goalkeepers: Nicole Barnhart, Ashlyn Harris, Alyssa Naeher, Hope Solo (not active).
Defenders: Rachel Buehler, Stephanie Cox, Whitney Engen, Ali Krieger, Amy LePeilbet, Christie Rampone, Becky Sauerbrunn.
Midfielders: Yael Averbuch, Shannon Boxx, Tobin Heath, Lori Lindsey, Carli Lloyd, Kelley O'Hara, Heather O'Reilly, Megan Rapinoe, Lindsay Tarpley.
Forwards: Lauren Cheney, Alex Morgan, Amy Rodriguez, Abby Wambach.

The United States appeared to be in top form last May, easily defeating the world's number two team, Germany, by a 4-0 margin. Since then, there have been some bumps in the road. They nearly lost to China on their home turf, pulling out a 1-1 tie in the final 10 minutes. They then lost to Mexico at CONCACAF. They managed to squeak by Italy twice by 1-0 margins, with the first being a goal well into stoppage. They then lost the opener at the Four Nations Tournament to Sweden. They did manage to rebound with wins over Canada and China.

Judging by her selections for this tournament, Pia Sundhage just about has her mind made up about the 21 players that will head to Germany in June. There are probably only three or four positions up for grabs, with one of them being the third keeper. Speaking of keepers, Hope Solo will be making the trip, but it will be strictly for training purposes as she is still recovering from shoulder surgery. Nicole Barnhart has the number two spot nailed down, leaving it to Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher to battle for the final spot.

There is very little new with this roster, except Whitney Engen on defense. The young defender who played her rookie season with the Chicago Red Stars, should see some action in this tournament. The rest of the back line is made up of experienced players like Christie Rampone and Amy LePeilbet.

The midfield should see the biggest competition for WC positions. Tobin Heath, just returning from her injury, is looking to make her mark on this team. Lindsay Tarpley has played well since her reemergence on the national scene.

At forward, it's power and speed. Abby Wambach and Lauren Cheney provide the power, while Alex Morgan and Amy Rodriguez provide the speed. Morgan has been especially prominent lately, scoring very big goals against China and Italy.

The US team got a wake-up call at Cancun. We'll see if they can rebound and be a major force at this year's World Cup.


Anonymous said...

Thank you guys so much for these previews. I hope we will get reports on the games. I understand Russia and New Zealand will be playing a friendly today.